The tagline described it as a “homespun murder story”. But really, it’s so many other things. It’s a morality tale, a character study, a dark comedy, a film noir. To call it strictly the latter, though, would be a paradox. “Film noir” literally translates to “dark film”, which normally covers every sense of the adjective, from storyline to overall look. But since this film is set in the dead of winter, with (mostly fake) snow blanketing virtually every single wide shot by Roger Deakins, it’s aesthetically anything but dark.
Nevertheless, it still has valid reasons to be classified as such. By definition, film noir is a bleak genre. It portrays man at his most ill-intentioned, with neither hint of redemptive quality nor moral ground. In this type of movie, greed is the cardinal sin-of-choice. The misdeeds are, more often than not, driven by the pursuit of an elusive object, be it a prized artifact, a precious heirloom, or a gem. In this film’s case, the inanimate culprit was a satchel full of cash. So, in that respect, it fits the bill. And it could very well be the whitest film noir ever made.
Fargo was the sixth feature film by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. Despite what the title suggests, majority of it is actually set in Minnesota, which explains the preponderance of “Yahs” and “You betchas” in the script. The brothers themselves were Gopher State-bred. In fact, they’ve endearingly referred to it several times as “Siberia with family restaurants”. While Brainerd is cited as the main setting, filming actually took place mostly between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Brainerd is one of the purported birthplaces of American folklore stalwarts Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, who are both repeatedly referenced in the film. As for the eponymous North Dakota city, it only figures in the opening scene – the pivotal meet-up which sets the foundation for the crime. When asked to explain the title, the brothers had a pretty straightforward response: it sounded better than “Brainerd”.
The film featured William H. Macy, in what would both be his breakthrough role and career highlight (It earned him his sole Oscar nod). Here, he played Jerry Lundegaard, a hapless car salesman who strikes a deal with two criminals-for-hire, the awkward but volatile Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and the quiet but menacing Gaear Grimsud (Peter Stormare). Desperate for a financial upturn, Jerry anonymously arranges to have his wife kidnapped, in order to extort his rich father-in-law and boss, Wade Gustafson (the late Harve Presnell). In exchange, he agrees to split the ransom with the thugs, in addition to giving them a new Oldsmobile. But just because a scheme is elaborate, it doesn’t mean it’s foolproof (or smart). The kidnapping pushes through, but the getaway runs amiss, and, in the process, innocent people end up dead.
Enter pregnant Chief Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand, wife of Joel and frequent collaborator of the Coens since 1984’s Blood Simple. The role earned McDormand her first Best Actress Oscar in 1997. Since then, she’s earned her second for Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) and she might as well be up for her third for Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland (2020).
In many ways, Marge epitomized the typical Midwestern woman. She’s good-natured, approachable, and polite – a sharp contrast to McDormand’s Blood Simple character, who’s an unfaithful wife. She’s also the voice of reason to everyone within her circle. Her exaggerated “Minnesota Nice” accent almost made her sound caricature. But she was a welcome caricature, considering all the grisliness we were shown in the first one-third of the film. With her introduction, we felt the bad guys were about to get their comeuppance and safety was on its way. It’s also why her scenes with her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) showed them either eating or sleeping together. It gave semblance of home. Marge was home.
Being an expectant mother, Marge embodied what archaic ideologies demanded from a woman. This was further implied by the dearth of other female characters in the story, who either adhered to a demeaning stereotype or were only incidental. There’s blundering abductee Jean Lundegaard (Kristin Rudrüd) who ran upstairs instead of through the door, the ditzy hookers who couldn’t remember details, small-talking clerks, and the irate customer’s wife whose only contribution in that scene was to pacify her husband, which she barely even could. But through it all, there was Marge breaking the mold and subverting the toxic masculinity rampant in the plot. She’s the headstrong protagonist who’d fearlessly take on the perpetrators and prevail, during her third trimester at that. This is where it deviates from film noir convention altogether, by adding a righteous figure and a likeable one at that.
It’s been a quarter-century since Fargo premiered. In one of its previews, the late Gene Siskel told the late Roger Ebert, “This is why we love movies”. To many, that sentiment wasn’t difficult to share. The film earned $60 million at the box office, which was 8 ½ times higher than their production budget and, well, definitely higher than what Jerry wanted to extort. It also earned the Coens their first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, but lost the plum prize to The English Patient, because the Academy loves an epic. They did, however, finally get their due 11 years later for No Country For Old Men (2007).
But figures and accolades aside, the film’s most remarkable feat, if we can even call it that, was how it tampered with the concept of reality. See, the Coens infamously presented the story as truth, and that much was conveyed in the opening text:
This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.
Except, none of them really occurred. At best, some of the events were claimed to be snippets of true-to-life cases, i.e. the climactic woodchipper scene was supposedly inspired by the 1986 murder of a Danish flight attendant. But even that was never totally confirmed. The explanations were never clear. Perhaps, the Coens wanted to keep it that way.
The ploy can be interpreted as an extension of one of the movie’s themes, which is deception. By the time initial audiences spotted the standard “all persons fictitious” disclaimer in the end credits, they realized they’ve been duped as well. Not that it mattered at that point. They bought the outrageousness. They were entertained. And the Coens? They darn tootin’ got away with it.
Such was the brothers’ knack for teasing their audience. By passing off fiction as fact, it heightened the intrigue and prolonged the suspension of disbelief. The gimmick would later on be replicated in the ongoing spin-off series, which, while disconnected from the film’s story arc, is set in the same fictional universe.
For such a quiet film, Fargo was indeed quite the anarchist. It shattered (snow-covered) glass ceilings, mocked gender biases then obliterated them, and sent shocks while keeping the same somnolent tone throughout. Above all, it traipsed the fine line between real and fabricated, therefore showing us that believability doesn’t always require authenticity. All that with Muzak in the background.